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Higher Education: A private good, a public good or a corporate good?

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I have just returned from a large international gathering of leaders of international higher education. There were over a thousand participants from 60 or so nations meeting in a resort city in the US. Rajesh Tandon, Paul Manners (Executive Director of the National Coordinating Council for Public Engagement in Higher Education in the UK) and I were there to launch the GUNi World Report on Knowledge, Engagement and Higher Education Contributing to Social Change. We were delighted with the attendance at the launch and with the quality of the discussion following. But some aspects of the larger gathering opened my eyes to dimensions of higher education that I had not had felt so strongly before.

Within the discourses of higher education and engagement that I have been part of over the past years, the question of whether higher education should be understood essentially as a means to achieving a private good for students fortunate to attend or as a public good seeing higher education as contributing to making this a more just and healthy world. What I found at this larger gathering was a new dimension: higher education as a corporate good.

Higher Education, particularly what is called ‘TNE’ or transnational education has gone far beyond the issue of market forces wishing to influence the curriculum of higher education to be able to be assured of a more flexible and compliant work force for the global economy. The market has discovered and created many ways to turn the growing demand for access to higher education into corporate profits. How has it done this? Private and/or corporate ownership of universities is fairly well known. Phoenix University in the USA is massive and extremely profitable. Thousands of larger and smaller universities have sprung up in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Arabic-speaking world. With few exceptions, profitability is key factor in these institutions making their way. Social responsibility, of the type that our UNESCO Chair is associated with, is not part of the mission of these institutions.

But private for-profit universities are not that new, even though their sheer numbers have grown exponentially over the past years. The market has discovered that there is money to be made in the business of recruiting international students from the global South to fill the emptying spaces in the global North. There are hundreds if not thousands of these recruiting bodies who will identify for a fee promising students from India, the middle east, SE Asia and so forth. There is money to be made as well in the creation of independent ranking systems. Not happy with the dominant league tables? For $30,000 your university can become part of an independent ranking system that will give you something to place on your web site. Publishing companies, distances learning systems, private research organisations, web-site developers, academic staff recruiting and scores of other services have developed. And they are fully integrated into the world of ‘TNE’ as plenary panel discussions demonstrate with private groups and public groups comfortably being put forward as experts or story tellers.

The discourses of the public good or social responsibility were seldom heard in the corridors of this conference. For me it means that the work of the very many inspiring people, remarkable civic higher education leaders, CUE networks, progressive granting councils, and individual community-university partnerships need to continue to increase their visibility and increase their message of transformation.

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